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An elephant’s day
So far, the highlight of our trip in Southeast Asia were the three days we spent with the elephants. A few hours drive from the Lao town of Luang Prabang you find the Elephant Conservation Center Sayaboury. This is not one more of those places where you can see elephants at work, logging or carrying tourists. The conservation center has a very different approach. The center takes care of working elephants that are not fit anymore for logging work or reproducing. Very many working elephants are never allowed to have a baby elephant, thus would mean too much lost time for the owner. An elephant is pregnant 22 months and the baby is depending on the mother for another 5 years. So, the center has introduced a baby bonus program. Mahouts (those who work with the elephant) and/or owners are invited to come to the center with the pregnant elephant and stay there. They are being paid for the time at the center. And after being around them for three days, we can say that they very much seem to enjoy life without logging duties.
Laos is historically the land of the 1000000 elephants. Today one estimates that there are something like 400 wild elephants left. Their habitat is getting smaller and smaller mainly because of the illegal deforestation. The number of the working elephants is also estimated in the area of 400. So, the center’s first concern is to help reproducing. We were able to see the two mothers with their babies taking a bath from close, although in safe distance at the other side of a pond.
The center is depending on sponsors. And a little bit of income is created by the tourists that come for 2 or 3 days. We also met people that came as visitors and stayed longer or came back as volunteers. There are a dozen or so bungalows for the visitors. With great view over a big lake and a stunning sunset. We learned a lot about elephants, their behavior and – very important – how we have to behave being close to them. Annabelle, who is in charge of the welfare of these giants calls them drama queens. A loud boat engine or a quick movement of a person in front of them can make start a trumpet concert. But, respecting the rules, we were able to touch and feed our new big friends. What a big difference touching a young or the old elephant: the young one’s skin is so much softer.
The elephants are usually together with their mahouts, they have never lived on their own. But with a socialization program the are getting used to being together as a herd like wild elephants. To see them in a quite big fenced in area, being allowed to stroll around alone or as a group, push down a tree to get to the best branches was for us the best part of the visit. It felt like watching wild elephants.
We can highly recommend this conservation project. And if Laos is not on your travel program, you can sponsor an elephant. Mae Boun Nam or Mae Khoun or one of the other 5 elephants owned by the center are worth a little donation. And we must not forget the kiddos. One of the youngest baby elephant risks to end up in a Chinese circus. If the center can get enough money they would like to buy both him and his mother to prevent that from happening.
Those who did not bother to shower themselves did not mind a helping hand.
One of our friends gets one straight on the nose, but with a nose that solid, no harm was done.
Elephants need cooling down in the heat, and bathing is a twice a day routine.
Sniffing ass is a popular pastime, one needs to know ones friends well!
Being a mahout is a very specialized occupation, you need to be good at it when your job is controlling three tons of potentially dangerous flesh and bone. But when they are handled right, these giants turn out to be peaceful and nice to be around.
The highlight was sitting for a couple of hours on a platform on a hillside watching the elephants gracing in the valley below. This is how they would live in the wild, in a herd of females.
What you do not want to do is to scream and shout and disturb the elephants and the beautiful scenery.
The youngest kiddo is less than a year old and does not totally master the art of eating with a trunk.
The owner of this baby has been offered money from some Chinese who wants to take him to a circus. If that happens, there will sure be no more trips to the beach with mummy. The center now needs 60.000 USD to prevent that from happening, that is the price the mahout wants for the baby and the mother.
Elephants are known to have eaten peoples hats, so DHH takes great care to look after his precious 1993 model Tilley.
Ooops….did something drop into the bathing water here..?
Who needs to keep the head above water when you are born with your own snorkeling gear? As for the brown stuff to the left… we rather not explain in public what that actually is…
The center has basic bungalows with small terraces, but they very much serve the propose.
The center is rather remotely located, the last few hundred meters we had to travel by boat. The lake was so covered in plants that we some times literally could not see the water.
Lunch with our guide at one of the centers viewing platforms.
Lunch at the center’s main building. All meals are included when you buy the trip.
The sunset pavilion offers excellent evening views of the lake.
This tight enclosure is for elephants who need treatment. The construction is so solid that they cannot move. In order to avoid problems the animals are taken in there regularly, so that they do not associate it with treatment that brings pain. And a snack always helps to keep the patient happy.
Annabelle does pedicure with a big knife. It looks dramatic, but it is routine. It can be very painful for an elephant if a nail cracks, so regular maintenance is important.
Elephants always flap their ears. The skin on the ears is thin as we can see here, and by flapping they cool their blood in the heat. African elephants live in hotter environment than Asian elephants, and this is the reason why the African branch of the family has bigger ears.
Like we do with dogs, when we hide the food and make the elephants work for their treats, we can give them a challenge and prevent boredom. At the elephant camp this is also done on a regular basis.
ES sticks some grass into a plastic bucket that hangs above ground. But as the next picture will show, that was not the most difficult nut to crack for our big and hungry friends.
The most difficult task was to get some sugar cane out of a set of two huge rubber tires that were stuck into one another. Here the centers five year old and one of his aunts is having a go.
A little piece of treat can be very elegantly gathered by a big trunk. In many ways, elephants use the end of their trunk the way we use our hands.
Elephants play an important role in Lao history and culture. This is from a temple wall in Luang Prabang.
Another temple elephant in Luang Prabang.
In school we learn about Hannibal’s use of war elephants 200 years BC. This painting is from the Lao National Museum in Vientiane and shows that war was also a part of elephants history in Laos.